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Drifter Jailed on Girls' Lies Set Course of Desperation

February 23, 2004|H.G. Reza, Christine Hanley and James Ricci | Times Staff Writers

Demoralized by 251 days in Orange County Jail, where he was wrongfully imprisoned by the lies of three girls, Eric Nordmark resolved to take matters into his own hands if convicted of assault and child molestation.

As his trial began last month, the 36-year-old drifter devised a plan, he said in telephone interviews over the past week: He would smuggle a razor blade stuck to his skin with bar-code labels from the jail commissary. Then, awaiting sentencing in the courthouse holding cell, he'd slice open his carotid artery.

Better that end, he decided, than a long stretch in the company of inmates notoriously brutal toward child molesters, followed by a lifetime of stigma if he survived incarceration. "My mind was made up," he said.

Fortunately for Nordmark, two days into his trial, the 12-year-old girl who was his principal accuser admitted the wanton attack never occurred. The girl said the entire story about the attack in a Garden Grove park on May 15, 2003, was a hoax concocted by her and two friends of similar age as an excuse for getting home late from school.

On Jan. 26, the defendant's waking bad dream abruptly ended. Nordmark, a college dropout, psychologist's son and former U.S. Army mortar man from Wisconsin, was set free. He departed for Seattle, where, he said, he hoped "to get back on my feet ... [to] find some menial work and start paying rent."

Blending In

An itinerant laborer who follows the weather, Nordmark had spent much of last winter in San Diego County, where he readily blended in with Ocean Beach's melange of bohemians, bikers and faded hippies. The place was friendly territory for an aimless man with self-admitted "esteem issues," a taste for drink and a strong desire for anonymity.

By May 2003, he was ready to go to the Pacific Northwest. Three days after departing, Nordmark spent a night in jail for public drunkenness in Anaheim, where he had hoped to meet a friend for the journey north. He was released Thursday, May 15.

Late the following afternoon, he was searching for cigarette butts in neighboring Garden Grove when he was approached by a police officer. The next thing he knew, he was handcuffed and made to sit on a curb. "I asked if I was being arrested, or what?" he said. "He said I was being detained -- that I matched a description."

A police car cruised by twice, stopping each time about 50 feet away, while its occupants looked him over. The officer, he said, threatened to arrest him on suspicion of public drunkenness if he did not come to the Garden Grove police station to be photographed. He complied, and was released.

Later that day, he happened on the site of the annual Garden Grove Strawberry Festival. He was promised work setting up carnival rides the following Tuesday, May 20. He wanted "a pocketful of cash" for a bus ticket to the Northwest.

On the 20th, Nordmark said, he put in 13 hours of work at the festival. He had just returned to the festival grounds after buying beer and tobacco when police arrived. He said he heard someone call his name, and when he turned in response, he was handcuffed.

"They're high-fiving each other," Nordmark recalled of two officers. "As the handcuffs were being placed, they said, 'You're under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon. The weapon is your hands.' I said, 'These hands are deadly if you're a mosquito. That's about it.' It's not in my nature to be violent."

Not until his arraignment a few days later did he fully realize the nature of the seven charges against him. He was shackled with other defendants, but his charges weren't read aloud, apparently for his protection. A public defender confided to him: "You've got child molestation charges, pretty much."

The 'Attack'

The tale told by the three girls was shocking and vividly detailed:

Walking home from Woodbury Elementary School on May 15, they passed a man lounging in Woodbury Park. As they left the park, the man suddenly appeared behind them. He grabbed one of them, pushed her onto her back and began pulling her hair and tearing at her shirt.

When a second girl went to her friend's aid, the man grabbed her, pulled her hair and tried to strangle her.

The first girl kicked the man in the groin, freeing the second, and the three girls ran to the safety of her gated Cynthia Circle apartment complex, the attacker calling after them, "It's not over!"

Later, police interviewed the visibly shaken girls as a group. The girl who said she was attacked second, according to an officer who was present, kept rubbing her neck and spitting -- the aftereffects, she said, of her near-strangling. They described the man as white, about 6 feet tall and wearing a dark, hooded sweatshirt. The description was similar to one given by two boys from the same apartment complex, who said a stranger in the same park had approached them menacingly two days before.

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